Today, Matt and I were visiting barns on behalf of the Green Mountain Timber Frames team. I am constantly amazed by the creative ingenuity of New England’s early farmers. These brave souls were—and are still—truly a backbone of the beautiful and communal aspects of our local New England culture.
An Ode to Farmers
Having grown up on a working dairy farm, I have witnessed the challenges that face farmers on a daily basis. Thinking of my father, my mother, and my grandfather as they strived to keep a farm running, I pondered the necessity for creativity and tenacity when it comes to getting that hay bailer or tractor running when it is desperately needed. I believe the same principle applied to the ways in which early farmers dealt with their timber frame barns.
Today, as we assessed one particular barn, we discovered some very clever repairs made to the frame over the years. We were inside an incredible 32×52 hand hewn timber frame barn that is badly fatigued and in need of help.
Unfortunately, the barn abutting this one was in much worse shape, and I felt quite deflated and heartbroken to see it.
This collapsed building still has a few vintage boards and timbers that can be salvaged.
But let’s return to the happier prospect of the barn we had come to see.
52-Feet of Chesnut Timbers
It was built very early, and has many American chestnut timbers. The rafters are hewn, and the posts are massive at 11×11 inches. Of the four timbers that span the length of the building, 3 are an incredible 52-feet of continuous hand hewn chestnut, with the fourth having a scarf joint to join two timbers together.
Imagine that: 52 foot American chestnut timbers that were shaped with a broad axe and an adze- and lots of spirit and grit.
Incredibly, one of the bents is a clear-span 32-foot timber truss. This means it was built strong enough to not need any interior posts, allowing the farmer to move a wagon and animals around inside with ease. In the next photo, you can see the two chestnut timbers that create the truss. They are tied together in the middle with a vertical timber, creating a remarkably strong system.
What about the clever repairs?
It seems that at some point in the history of this barn’s use, the lower timber, which measures 11 x 18 inches by 32-feet, developed a split. Matt and I were studying the repair that was done in the past, and we realized that it was made using the metal rim of an old wagon wheel!
Here is a close-up of the ingenious repair, recycling no doubt a farm implement that’s use had gone by the wayside:
We also discovered a wonderful thing for us modern timber framers to see: a likely mistake made by our mentors who lived two hundred years ago. In a way, it is refreshing to see that even those incredible craftspeople from the past occasionally made an error like we sometimes do!
One of the 32-foot timbers did not have a typical tenon. It sure looks like someone cut this timber too short. We have all been there who have cut mortise and tenons time after time. It is a big “whoops” when it involves an 11 x 18 inch by 32-foot American chestnut timber that was cut and hewn by axe and adze!
In the next photo, you can see where a spline was added to the end of the girt, essentially adding back the section that was missing. If you look carefully at the underside of this massive timber, you can see where a 2-inch plank was let in, and then pegged thoroughly.
This ingenious repair reminds me of a saying given to me by a wise builder when I was starting out as a framer:
“The sign of a great carpenter is not whether you make mistakes or not; rather, it is about how creative you can be about fixing your mistakes when they happen!”
I am trying to remember what error I had made as a 22-year-old to earn me that old “chestnut” of wisdom. I don’t remember what it was, but I am grateful for the lesson that was imparted to me that day, and I remember it still. Well, the repair in this barn held up well. Approximately 210 years, and holding strong!
Speaking of holding strong, we saw a real example of the strength of a single oak peg, or trunnion, used in the old days to fasten the timber joinery together without the use of nails. As I mentioned earlier, this barn is struggling, and due to a leak in the roof, one of the 32-foot girts that span the building has rotted completely away.
Incredibly, the 12-foot post that used to be supported by that missing timber is still in the air as part of the queen system supporting the rafters. Here it is:
It is amazing to me how these well-crafted barns can hold together in spite of serious distress! Just one peg. Hm, that seems like a possible metaphor for what each of us humans can do for holding together the values that we treasure in our communities. I will save that musing for later. But think about it- a single one-inch peg holding up that 12-foot hardwood post. Incredible.
Just a couple miles from this grand old barn, there stands another. Unfortunately, the main structure is beyond restoration. But when I climbed into the icy basement, I was amazed by a support for the barn that was added sometime in the first half of the 20th century. Clearly, the floor system had been sagging, and a clever farmer knew just how to form up a support for the beams.
Once again, a derelict symbol of past farming practice was recycled. Just take a look at this:
Old wooden barrels, no doubt leaky or just no longer used, were stacked up with the bottoms cut out. After that, it was as simple as pouring in the concrete! The wood of those barrels is long gone, but their “fingerprints” left no doubt how this impressive pier was created.
Here is to all those who have worked creatively to sustain and stabilize these majestic structures from the past, and also to all in our communities who desire to see our cultural farming heritage preserved for the future!
May those of us dedicated to preserving these structures be as creative, industrious, and as dedicated as those who have come before us.
Interested in one of our old barns for sale?
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We recently took down another beautiful corn crib from circa 1850. This structure has a fascinating history, and when we moved it six weeks ago, it wasn’t its first journey across the fields!
In the photo above, I discuss the frame with the current property owner. We are grateful to him and his family for wanting to see this historic barn frame saved.
History of the Barn
This photo shows a beautiful farmstead in Hartford, New York. In between the large barn and the house, you can see our little corn crib peeking through. I have been learning some of the history of the area from a wonderful little book published in 1896. As I delve into the history, I find that this corn crib has a complicated story- one that brings up both sorrows and joys in the story of this area.
A Bit of History from Hartford, NY
May 2 of 1764 first saw the lands of what would become Hartford given by grants from the English Crown to officers of the New York Infantry after they had served in the French and Indian wars. This land had previously been hunting grounds for the Iroquois tribe. The family who owns the land now tells me that they have found many stone arrowheads in the cornfields around the barns.
In the Revolutionary War section of the book shown above, Samuel Bowen mentions that one of the combatants in the war hailed from Hartford. His family was an early owner of the property where this timber frame barn once stood.
On March 12 of 1793, the town of Hartford was established. It was named after a tribal group who had been pushed out of Hartford, Connecticut, and who had taken up residence in the area.
Here are a few details that caught my eye and imagination from the town records:
- In 1794, just one year after the town was officially formed, it was decided at a town meeting that the grazing of sheep and swine on the town commons would no longer be allowed. In addition, it went into the notes of the meeting, which was held at the house of David Austin, that a lawful fence be no less than four and a half feet tall.
- In 1803, a special town meeting was called at the Baptist Church to take measures to slow the spread of smallpox. A committee of 11 was appointed to find ways to minimize the terrible effects of the disease.
- 1818 saw the imposition of a new tax that would raise $300 for the support of the poor, and also for a town-run home to support the needy.
- In 1846, Hartford took a vote to decide on the sale of “spirituous liquors.” Of the three hundred and two votes cast, 151 favored a liquor license, with the exact number of voters opposing the town-sanctioned sale of liquor! One year later, the mood had shifted, and the licensed sale of liquor was approved in town by a majority of 92 votes.
And right around the time that Hartford voted to allow the sale of liquor, a wonderful little corn crib was crafted.
About the Hartford Corn Crib
The barn was built to house the corn that was grown on the Hartford farm. It measures 14 x 20 feet. Classic corn crib siding was installed, which allowed for excellent ventilation that would keep the corn drying after it was harvested. Wide boards were sliced so that air could flow through the gaps, but rainwater would be unlikely to enter and spoil the corn.
The barn stood in the farmyard for over 100 years, right next to the large barn where animals were kept, and also where militia members were once housed during a conflict with Native Americans in the area.
The Corn Crib Makes Its (First) Move
Our little corn crib saw a big change in the fall of 1968. No longer needed for corn storage, the barn was moved from the farmyard out to the woods behind the fields. The structure was moved with the use of a bulldozer.
When the corn crib was moved, the family discovered a hand made mortar and pestle under the floorboards. It seems that one member of the Bowen family was a physician, and he likely used this tool to smash and mix early medicines.
In its new location on the edge of the woods, our little cabin was transformed from corn storage to trapper’s cabin. Here is what the 2nd floor loft looked like when I first got to visit it:
The Trapper Cabin and the Fur Trade
This time period was the height of profitability in the fur trade. The family that now owned it was involved in purchasing pelts from trappers, and then curing them to be used in the making of clothing. We pulled hundreds of these wooden stretchers out of the cabin, some with notes on successful trapping trips dating from the 1940s through the 1980s.
When the Green Mountain Timber Frames first viewed the cabin, it was in distress. The roof had leaked and it had not been inhabited for decades other than by porcupines and birds. Like the dry storage of corn cobs, the trapping industry was a thing of the past. We decided to take on the project of saving this barn, and finding a third purpose for the worthy structure.
Dismantling the Trapper’s Cabin
We moved onto the site in early February and tackled the clean-out of the barn. Once we got down to the structure, we removed the slate roof as well as the original cedar shake roof that was underneath. The siding was next. The boards on this little structure are impressive!
Some of the loft floorboards are also remarkable, and we know from our history book that these most likely came from local water sawmills that were in operation on the East Creek, not far from the cabin location.
The interior of the trapper cabin originally had a full loft and a staircase. There were bins on the 2nd floor for storage of grains, and we presume that bins existed along the eve walls for the drying of corn. In the next photo, you can see one bin remaining on the fall gable wall, as well as a bin on the 2nd floor.
We popped the pegs from the joinery, and disassembled the frame. Each wooden joint was labeled. In the next photo, you can see Isaac working on removing one of the oak pegs that holds the top plate in place. Andy seems to be helping to hold the barn up!
We had a great crew for the tip down of this adorable frame. Here they are standing on the 2nd floor of a gable end:
The braces that the guys are holding have a unique detail on them. I am intrigued by the “swoop” cut into the edge of the braces. It is gorgeous, and not something I have come across often in braces:
The floor joists and floor boars in this frame are wonderufl. Here is a view from the interior after we stripped the siding boards:
We made a fascinating discovery on one of the interior boards that came from this corn crib. In the next photo, you can see multiple inscriptions scratched into the surface of a pine plank:
This daisy wheel is an intriguing mark that we occasionally find in barns. Many theories abound about the meaning, ranging from a geometric blueprint for the structure, to the more superstitious theory that the mark was a “witch hex,” meant to ward off the presence of evil spells and the people who cast them.
This frame was built at a time not that far removed from the dark history of the witch trials of New England, and it does seem plausible that secret markings were used to protect food from imagined curses.
What is next for this timber frame structure?
For the second time in its story, the corn crib turned trapper cabin has been carried across the cornfields to the original Hartford site, and now back to our shop in Middletown Springs, Vermont. Because the farm road was impassible by truck and trailer, we brought our tractor over to carry the disassembled barn back to the main road.
We have now restored the timber frame structure, which included replacing one post with a similarly colored and aged timber, as well as other more minor repairs. In the next photo, we have one cross-section, or bent, of the barn assembled in our shop during the restoration.
We are now looking for a new home for this cabin and the stories that it tells. It would make a remarkable woodland or meadow cabin retreat with a half loft. Here is one last photo that shows the 2nd floor of the cabin.
This barn is for sale! Interested in learning more about this antique corn crib?
Here at Green Mountain Timber Frames, we have just finished dismantling a beautiful early 1800s granary.
This fantastic 18×20 corn crib was used to store the vitally important corn and grain that were grown on an historic farm in Rupert, Vermont.
This structure has tipped walls, meaning that it was purposely built with the eve walls tipped out to be wider at the top than the base. This technique was used in the 1700s and first decades of the 1800s to keep rain running away from the valuable contents of the barn interior. You just can’t be too careful about protecting the food that will get you through the next winter!
Come Inside this Historic Corn Crib
The barn was entered via this gorgeous door with hand wrought strap hinges. Once inside, there were high bins on either side. Hardwood 4×4 studs created the structure of the bins, which were approximately 3-feet wide and 9-feet high. The board walls of the bins had been removed before we arrived, but the elevated and slatted floors were still in place that kept air circulating all around the food that was stored in the bins.
Immediately to the left of the entrance door was a steep staircase up to a central loft. Ears of corn could be carried up and dropped down into the bins for retrieval throughout the long Vermont winters.
In the next photo, you can see some corn kernels that we found under the loft floorboards. I am so curious about the age of these corn seeds! They could be from a crop that grew 200 years ago so, of course, we saved them.
There are unique, full-length beams, which run the length of the structure. These hand-hewn timbers established the width of the bins for corn storage and also framed the edge of the central loft. In the next photo, you can see where this beam is lapped over the girt.
The care that was given to the chamfers in this joinery where it is notched over the center bent is spectacular.
We were also stunned by the beauty of the handcrafted rafter tails. They protrude out beyond the eve beams to create a gorgeous overhang that further protected the valuable corn from the weather.
Holding the Roof in Place with Rose Head Nails
At the dawn of the 1800s, iron was a valuable commodity, and it took a lot of work to forge nails by hand. In the next photo, you can see a few of the original rose head nails that were used to hold the roof boards in place.
In light of the value of nails when this frame was erected, the top plate (eve beam) was set with an overhang and carefully channeled to receive the top of the vertical siding boards. This was yet another detail that protected the interior from moisture. The top of the boards was carefully chamfered so that they would fit tightly into the groove in the beam. No nails were needed at the top of the siding boards because they were fit so tightly into the channel.
The Important Role of Hardwood Pegs
The main fastener used was, of course, hardwood pegs. These beautiful wooden dowels have held strong for over two hundred years, and it was an incredible experience to pop them out and contemplate the fact that they have not been touched by a human hand for so very long.
We have had so much fun discovering the particulars of this vintage timber frame, and feel so lucky to be involved in saving it to be enjoyed by future generations. In the next photo, Jesse and Andy stand next to one of the center bent posts.
After labeling and stripping the roof boards and siding, we started popping the pegs and disassembling the joinery. Here is some of the crew after we lowered the first bent to the ground.
Once the bents were on the ground, we disassembled them and labeled the individual beams and braces.
There were two extremely friendly maple trees that have been hugging the granary for many years now. We used one of them, along with a block and tackle, to lower the bents to the ground. In the following video, you can see how we did it with the help of that maple tree.
Restoration Plans for the Rupert Granary
We will be restoring this adorable little frame over the coming month and we are excited about its future somewhere on a new foundation where many future generations of humans can enjoy it.
Speaking of enjoying and using this granary, here is a beautiful photo provided to us by the property owner of someone else who has enjoyed the Rupert Granary in recent years. When we pulled up the floorboards in this barn, we found many remains of dinners consumed there. It appears that chicken dinner was a favorite of the fox family that lived under this barn- much to the chagrin of the farmer!
Stay tuned to find out where this beautiful little granary is headed for its next phase of life and, as always, let us know if you are interested in restoring and preserving a barn of your own.
This past week, we finished the barn restoration of a structure from around 1850. The old barn stood next to a dirt road in Brandon, Vermont. Thanks to the commitment of the family that now owns the property, the barn, which was in very bad shape, is now restored and re-erected on the same land.
Remembering a Civil War Veteran
In digging into the history of this particular barn, we found that a casualty of one war is tied to the history of the barn that we have just restored. Next to the original barn location, we found the burial site of William Dunlap. The gravestone tells that he was part of the Vermont 12th infantry and that he died July 31st, 1863, at the age of 25.
I would like to pause here and take this opportunity to thank our veterans for their service to this country. In particular, I want to acknowledge and express gratitude to one of our own team, Andy, who served in the army for eight years. So many have served, and the sacrifices are tremendous.
In the next photo, Andy and I were finally able to read the memorial stone for Dunlap. We had stopped earlier on a clear day, and could not decipher the faded engraving. However, something about the rain running down the stone on this particular day allowed us to read the words.
It was a surreal moment to be at his grave and to reflect on the life and death of this young man. He joined the 12th regiment that went into camp at Brattleboro on September 25, 1862. The group was mustered into United States service on October 4 and left Vermont on October 7 for Washington DC. It seems likely that William never returned to the hills of Vermont before his death. The Vermont 12th was near Gettysburg for that significant battle and was assigned to protect the corps train. Like so many in the Civil War, William died in a Virginia hospital of a simple disease just days after the Battle of Gettysburg.
It has been poignant to think about William. We reflected at his graveside on the likelihood that William spent his youth playing and working in this barn. While we have not been able to date the construction of the barn exactly, we believe it was built sometime between William’s birth and when he was a 12-year-old child. At the time of his death, the body was sent home to Vermont to be interred on the family farm.
While erecting the frame, we met another young man in his twenties. His grandmother has property nearby and he told us of swinging on the rope that was hanging in the hay loft of the barn. It is amazing to hear these stories—book ends on the story of this barn as it stood on its original foundation.
Now the frame stands again near the grave of William, and we are very grateful and proud of how the restoration turned out. I will take this opportunity to show some photos of the restored structure and the process of putting it back up.
Reerecting the Restored Barn
We erected the four bents first. These wall sections form the width of the building. The raising process took place during some very wet and overcast weather, and we even worked in falling snow on one of the days.
Next, we set the 38 foot top plates onto the bents. In the next photo, Isaac checks the post tenon that is about to receive the top plate. In gunstock frames, the post has 2 perpendicular tenons at the top: one for the girt and one for top plate.
A Modified Gunstock Timber Frame
The Dunlap barn is a style that is called “modified gunstock.” All gunstock frames had tapered posts that increase in size from post bottom to post top. These frames had this feature in order to provide increased bearing for the support of the upper horizontal timbers.
The posts get their name from the way in which they look like the upside down stock of a rifle. In a modified gunstock, the taper is oriented parallel with the eve of the building. The most important feature of gunstock frames is that the girt (beam going the width of the building) and the top plate (long beam going along the eve of the building) are at the same elevation. This makes an incredibly strong junction of timbers.
The Dunlap barn has beautiful labels on the timbers and braces. These markings, sometimes referred to as “marriage marks,” were used to match each joint with its partner. Early frames were built flat on the ground before being erected, and each joint was scribed into its place. On raising day, the marriage marks ensured that each brace went in the proper place. We love studying these labels!
Here are the marriage marks between a brace and its post:
This frame had a couple of unique features in the rafter structure. First, the queen system that supports the rafters at mid-span had struts or braces that come from the posts down towards the center of the building. It was more common for these posts to be braced towards the eve in order to resist outward thrust of the roof load that could push the walls apart.
In a gunstock frame, where all the horizontal timbers come together at the same height, there is already incredible strength resisting outward thrust. For this reason, it was more important to these early craftspeople to install braces against the downward force or weight of the roof system and snow load that could push the queen posts in.
The second somewhat unusual feature in this barn is the way that the rafter system is braced to the five-sided ridge beam. In later buildings, there were often braces out on the two ends of the roof system. In this case, the timber framers installed a pair of braces right in the center of the roof.
Installing the Roof Boards
We were able to reuse about 60% of the original roof boards and supplemented these with a few of the original wall boards as well as vintage material from our inventory. There were some beauties that went onto this roof! Imagine the size of the pine tree from which these boards were sawn.
We are grateful that we had the opportunity to save and restore this vintage timber frame, and we are especially glad that it will remain not far from the resting place of William Dunlap, 12th Vermont Infantry.
May we respect and honor all our veterans as we work for peace in this world.
A few weeks ago, Matt and I took a drive up and over to Waterford, Vermont. It’s in Caledonia County, and sits right on the border with New Hampshire. Waterford is a town I had never before visited. We were there to look at an old barn for sale.
We had been called because the foundation under a large gunstock timber frame is crumbling, and the property owners would like to see this barn saved and re-homed before it deteriorates further. This barn was worth the long drive from our home base. The posts and timbers are beautiful, and even the braces are hand hewn. We will be carefully disassembling this beautiful and worthy barn in the coming months, after which we will restore the timber frame. Stay tuned for more information as we get this structure measured, drawn to scale, and listed as an available frame on our webpage.
Exploring this Historic Barn
What we found when we walked around the back side of this structure stopped me in my tracks and struck my imagination. It was an immediate and poignant reminder of the days when this barn was used to store food from the land, and to house and feed the animals that sustained the New Englander’s lifestyle. There, next to the barn, was a decrepit old silo, with vines growing up the side. It looked like the turret of some old agricultural castle, and I pushed my way through wild grapes and wild cucumber vines to find the opening. The roof had collapsed and I could see vegetation reclaiming the interior. The old stone foundation was mossy and I could imagine the excitement of the farm crew many years ago as they laid these rocks in a neat circle to define the storage space for their crops- no doubt in between the daily chores of feeding the animals, tending the fields along the Connecticut River and milking the cows. Unlike most of the old wooden silos that have vertical boards held together with steel rings, this one had vertical studs with thin boards bent to match the radius inside and outside. A sumac tree had sprouted, and its upper branches were capturing the afternoon sunlight as I peered in. A single four pane window was in the top of the silo wall, and in the early days this would have let that same sunlight into the interior to illuminate for the farmer how much of the summer’s bounty remained as the winter months progressed. I am so glad we will be catching the large barn before it, too, is reclaimed by vines and trees.
Surprises Behind the Gunstock Barn
There was another surprise behind the large gunstock barn that we had come to see. As we looked out into the woods, we saw another abandoned structure literally cradled by the limbs of trees. I asked about the little barn, and was granted permission to explore it. The owners had not been in it for a very long time, and suspected it was nothing that would be of interest or that could be salvaged. I went in for a closer look.
Each gable rake of the little barn had a tree that had pushed right through the metal roofing. Undoubtedly, this barn must sway with the poplar, maple, and birch trees when the wind blows.
Climbing through the door, I was blown away by the interior. Like the silo, the uses of this structure were immediately apparent.
- First, it had been built as a corn crib. The slatted siding on the back gable wall gave me this clue. It had a beautiful stair case up to the loft and the stairs were designed with a half radius at the top and hand made hardware that allowed the stairs to be folded upward and out of the way.
- Second, someone had rigged a wood stove on the second floor and a little side table and chair indicated it had been home for someone-perhaps summer help on the farm.
- Third, this had been used as a machine shop in the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. It is absolutely filled with gadgets, tools, hardware and belt-driven devices.
The incredible durability of old-growth timbers was apparent as I inspected the hand-hewn timber frame. In spite of the trees pressing in, the frame is worthy of restoration, and we agreed to purchase this 14×18 foot frame. Once restored and erected on a new foundation, it will make a remarkable cabin with sleeping quarters on the second floor. We will be listing this corn crib on our webpage soon.
Like many high quality corn cribs from the late 1700s and early 1800s, this barn has braces that go up from the posts to the girts, and also braces that go down from posts to the sills. I cannot wait to spend a day inside this barn with our dedicated team doing our best to decipher and document the creative web of belt-driven machines and jigs. We will then begin popping out the hardwood pegs, disassembling the timber frame joinery, and labeling all of the wooden joints. In time, this frame too will have a new home and a continued evolution of usefulness. The constant variable throughout these progressions will be the stout integrity of the structure and its aesthetic beauty.
Our day in Waterford was a good one, spent meeting new people who care deeply about saving the buildings of our New England farming heritage, learning about the farming practices of long ago, and acquiring two more vintage timber frames that are worthy of restoration.
So what do we do with such a beautiful artifact of our Vermont farming heritage? A client of ours is considering using it as a giant chandelier in his 1780s timber frame barn home that we restored for him. I can just imagine the dinner party conversations that would ensue as guests look up at this slaughter wheel and discuss its past!
Or, this wheel hoist may just end up residing in the upper beams of our shop where we could use it to lift its contemporaries- beams from the same time period that we restore.
Have an idea of what we should do with the slaughter wheel? Or simply interested in learning about the barns we have for sale?
We would love to hear from you.
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